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The role of HR in change 16/05/2010

One of the essential skills for any HR practitioner to master is the successful management of change. An HR leader, business partner or specialist may be called upon to play one or more of four primary roles in change. Here, Jan Hills from Orion shares her knowledge of what it takes to be a successful agent of change.

The role of HR in change

Click to jump to section

  1. Four primary roles in change
  2. Relevance & case for change
  3. Readiness for change
  4. Robustness for change
  5. Responsiveness of change
  6. Key skills for HR in change
  7. Influencing change
  8. Communication
  9. Diagnosis and planning
  10. A summary of change management

Four primary roles in change

• Change leader/owner, taking full responsibility for the planning and implementation of their own change project. The most obvious of these would be an HR director transforming all or part of the HR function, but it could also be on a smaller scale, for example a restructuring of a team or the introduction of a new intranet-based service.

• Change educator, bringing specialist knowledge and expertise to help clients understand more about the structure and process of successfully managing change. This will often fall to the centre of expertise specialists and may involve running workshops, designing practical tools or making available other resources, such as reading materials or theoretical models.

• Change advisor, working with clients directly through the process of designing and implementing change, challenging and guiding them to get it right. This role will often be the remit of the HR business partner, for example in the restructuring of the sales function, or could also be played by the HR director in the case of wholesale organisational change.

• Change participant, being part of a change that affects them personally. In this role any HR practitioner can use their knowledge of change to set their expectations of the process, troubleshoot problems and understand and manage their own and others’ reactions to events. Achieving mastery involves first understanding the architecture of successful change: having a clear picture of all the elements necessary for a sound process, built on a solid foundation. HR practitioners can add huge value in change situations by guiding the organisation to pay attention to all the important aspects, even when it is unpopular and may seem unnecessary to those eager for swift action. There will also be skills, tools, methodologies and interventions they can use as the change progresses, but their greatest value can be in the quiet insistence that sufficient time is spent on laying the foundations.

The architecture of change
 
There are four primary architectural components of change that HR practitioners can check are understood, tested and satisfied to ensure there will be a meaningful and sustainable impact on the organisation and its performance:

All four components are equally important, but they do not necessarily all receive equal attention from the designers and implementers of change. In our fast-moving world, action is often valued more highly than careful and thoughtful planning. Decision-makers can become intransigent when Challenged to expose and re-examine their reasoning. Leaders often believe they can force their plans through, regardless of known problems with previous efforts at change and prefer to plough ahead, rather than enquire into and anticipate foreseeable resistance, problems or blocks. Attention is frequently centred solely on the technical aspects which, although crucial, will not in themselves deliver easy or lasting change. All too often impatience, desire for action and belief in hierarchy result in leaders ignoring the human impact of the change, believing people will “do as they’re told” or “just have to get on with it”.

Paying insufficient attention to one of the components will not necessarily cause an entire change project to fail, but it is extremely likely to make it more painful to implement and more difficult to sustain.

There is a natural sequence of when to focus on each of the components, although the process is not linear by any means.

  • Examining and getting very clear about the relevance must precede all else: if people are unable to understand why there is a need to change and if that reason is not meaningful, traction will never be gained. This is the pre-planning stage.
  • Once a clear and compelling need for change has been established planning can begin on two fronts simultaneously.
  • Planning how the change will be managed: taking account of the readiness of the organisation and its component parts to change.
  • Planning what will change: the design of robust solutions. 

As concrete plans begin to form and knowledge of the impending change becomes more wide-spread, attention must be paid to the emotional impact it will have on those affected. 

In complex change situations, the entire process is often iterative. As the change unfolds in microcosms of the larger system, all four components must be proven true again for the smaller entity.

Whatever role the HR practitioner is playing, they can use their influencing, communication, planning and diagnostic skills to ensure the architecture of the change is rigorously tested and applied.

Relevance & case for change

Relevance is about deeply understanding the reasons behind and the business case for change. 

It involves asking questions that test the soundness of the thought processes that have led to the proposal of change now. 

  • Why are we undertaking this change? 
  • What do we want to achieve?
  • What will happen if we don’t? 
  • What current problems will it and won’t it solve? 
  • What potential new problems could it create? 
  • Why is now the right time for this change?

Done well, this deep inquiry leads to a shared understanding among key stakeholders of what the long term goals are, how important this is, what the potential Benefits to the business are, realistic understanding of the limitations, and a sense of urgency to act now. This later becomes the “story” that is told as the change begins to be communicated to a wider audience and ultimately can become the motivating rallying cry to keep people engaged when times get hard ahead.

We have all seen the effects of a lack of attention to relevance. The new initiative that is introduced because it “seems like a good idea”, “everyone else is doing it” or “an organisation our size should have it”, that consumes enormous time and resources and is never used. Try introducing a new child-care policy in an organisation that is struggling for its economic survival and notice how hard it is to get people’s attention, never mind their support. Or recognise that a new all-singing, all-dancing system will only be used if it provides something of what the business wants in less time than they can currently get what they need.

If change is already underway and it is proving hard to get support or attention, revisiting the question of relevance may provide some answers.

Readiness for change

Readiness is about understanding what in the organisation’s leadership thinking, its culture and its history of change will help or hinder the successful implementation of what is proposed. 

Questions here examine the accelerators and the brakes on change in general and on this one in particular. They also look at how similar or disparate these are across the organisation, since not all parts of the business may have the same levels of readiness at the same time. 

  • Do our leaders share a common vision for the change and its full business potential? 
  • Do they have important personal gains to be made or conflicts of interest? 
  • How does our leadership model fit with the change? 
  • What aspects of our culture will help support the change and what will hinder it? 
  • What has our history of change been; do we tend to embrace or resist it? 
  • Where or when does change tend to get stuck here, and why? 
  • What are the major threats to success and how can we mitigate them? 
  • Do we have uniformity or do we need to adapt our approaches to take account of differences around the organisation? 

Realistically assessing the organisation’s readiness for the change enables the project planners to take account of foreseeable obstacles to successful implementation. If, for example, the leaders are not all aligned to the change, one work-stream can be specifically focused on creating alignment and personal incentive for each of them. If projects have typically lost momentum after 6 months’ work, re-engagement interventions can be planned as that time approaches. If businesses or departments usually operate very independently, cross-functional teams can be established from the outset and given common and interdependent goals.

Lack of attention to the state of readiness creates blind spots and asks for later problems that could have been predicted from what is known about the present or can be learned from the past. HR has a valuable role to play in examining and naming the known facts that could potentially derail the change if left untended.

If change is already underway and is derailing or gaining variable degrees of support in different parts of the organisation, it is worth going back to see how much investigation of readiness was done at the start.

Robustness for change

Robustness is about designing strength into the nuts and bolts of the change and this usually attracts the most effort and energy in projects. 

It involves understanding the changes we are making to the systems, processes, structure, roles, location, suppliers, contractual arrangements and all the other inanimate aspects of the plans and designs. 

  • Have we got the structure right? 
  • Is our design fit for purpose? 
  • Do the systems deliver what is needed? 
  • Do our people understand what they and others have to do in the changed environment? 
  • How will it all work together? 
  • When implemented, will it achieve the goals of the change?

Getting it right on the technical front is very important and it is appropriate that this should be a central focus. Well-thought through physical changes that prove their value in increased efficiency, productivity or ease of use will naturally replace their predecessors.  When solutions work and there are seamless joins between them and other structures and systems, transition into the new state glides smoothly.

Poorly designed solutions, or those superimposed on existing structures without taking a holistic view are doomed to failure. If it is harder to perform a task or get information, or it takes longer or costs more after the change than before, not surprisingly resistance occurs. People work around the new systems or processes, for example by keeping their own records, or revert to the former way of doing things in pursuit of an easy life.

It is relatively rare that attention is not paid to technical robustness, although solutions are often sub-optimal for a range of reasons from insufficient funding to practical incompetence. However the biggest risk is that the focus on the technical side overrides all else, resulting in the other three necessary components of successful change being ignored or under-valued.

If the implementation stages of a change are proving arduous, or people quickly revert to old ways of working, reviewing the robustness of the technical solutions and how they fit into the whole may provide insights.

Responsiveness of change

Responsiveness is about acknowledging and dealing with the human impact of change and is often the least attended-to factor in unsuccessful change projects.

It involves understanding and responding to the emotional journey that we all experience when faced with change, regardless of whether we perceive it to be positive or negative. 

  • How are people reacting to the changes and the implications for them? 
  • What do they feel they are losing and what might they gain? 
  • How clear is it to them what will change and when? 
  • How and when will they stop what they used to do and start what they are going to do? How will they deal with the ambiguity in the transition? 
  • How can we support them until the new order is business as usual?

There is a natural cycle people go through in change, though most are oblivious to it and are conscious only of a series of internal emotional reactions to what is being asked of them. Bringing these to light, putting them in a larger context, acknowledging them as important and equipping managers to anticipate and deal with them constructively pays enormous dividends in winning the hearts and minds of the people affected by the change. This smoothes the path of change and greatly increases its chances of succeeding and lasting.

When people have been helped to understand why change is happening and been allowed to explore their sense of loss or anger at the upheaval, when they have been helped to manage the confusion or anxiety they feel and been encouraged, when the time is right, to see the positives in the new order, they become ready to embrace and work creatively with the vision of the future.

If the emotional impact of the change is ignored and people are left to deal with it in their own way, dissention, active or passive resistance and negativity usually result. Good people will leave, malcontents will disrupt and the change will stand a high chance of failure.

If there is negative “noise” surrounding a change being implemented, morale is low or good people are leaving, it is never too late to look at what is actively being done to manage the emotional side.

Key skills for HR in change

A major contribution HR can make in any change process is understanding the architecture, ensuring it is applied, and educating everyone involved: the leaders, the teams running work-streams and those directly and indirectly affected. This takes some skill to achieve and it is worth considering here some of the most important capabilities needed.

Recognising when change is happening

Change comes in many sizes: large, medium and small. It tends to gain people’s attention when it is large-scale and systemic, for example when a merger is underway, HR is going through full transformation, a company-wide IT system is being implemented or a company is relocating. In these circumstances there will usually be a project plan with multiple work-streams, access to the change leaders should be quite simple and HR will normally have a natural platform for ensuring the architecture of change is considered in constructing the plans. In smaller change situations, the fact that “change” is occurring at all is often missed and it proceeds unmanaged and without architecture.

Smaller changes need to be managed just as well and as thoughtfully as large ones and HR needs the skill to notice the smallest of them for what they are. For example the restructuring of a single department resulting in a few redundancies does not register on most people’s change Richter scale: it’s a redundancy exercise, not a change project.  Wrong. For everyone in that department and anyone tangentially connected to them, it constitutes a huge change and should be managed accordingly, with attention to all four components of the architecture. 

Sadly the focus is often on the robustness: complying with the law in executing the redundancies, while ignoring how well-thought through the plan is in the first place, how expected or unexpected it will be given the company’s history and what the emotional impact on those remaining will be.

A plan to hire a single senior person can be a big enough event to benefit from being examined from a change architecture perspective and HR’s role is to have it recognised as such.

Influencing change

Lucky the HR practitioner whose advice is followed without Challenge and who is consulted oracle-like before any action is taken toward change.  More often, change is already underway by the time HR is first involved: thought processes gone through; decisions have been made; perhaps even action taken. 

Entering the change process at this stage, HR must be able to assess how sound the reasoning is, how much the readiness has been examined, how robust the plans for solutions are  and how much attention is being paid to the effect on the people.  Any weaknesses or gaps found in the assessment put HR in the position of needing to slow things down and get their clients to re-examine earlier decisions, assumptions or actions.  It is impossible to do this without strong influencing skills.

Influence is underpinned by credibility and made easier through relationship and HR practitioners must devote energy to establishing their credibility and building their relationships widely so that when the time comes to need to influence, the ground will be fertile. The art of influence is knowing when to push and when to pull; when to ask and when to tell; when to pace the client and when to lead. It is knowing how to insist without dogmatism; how to compromise without folding; and how to withdraw leaving the way open for future progress.

Without influence, the HR practitioner is confined to executing the will of the leaders and cannot add true value to the direction and management of change.

Communication

Lack of understanding or knowledge about impending change is one of the biggest causes of resistance and negativity.

Clear communication of facts as they become known is the ideal, but even if this is not possible, open communication about why decisions or facts cannot yet be released and an honest statement about when they might be known, and what people can do in the meantime, is better than nothing. 

HR has a role to play in making sure implementers understand the importance of communication in engaging people, stabilising the environment, reinforcing the important change messages and preparing for the future. HR can help clarify messages and ensure that people understand the multiple channels available and the many forms communication can take: informal chats at the coffee machine; one-to-one and team meetings; formal briefings; town halls; emails; newsletters; intranet; podcasts and many more. HR can also use its many touch points with employees to play its own part in the communication process and can ensure that others are equipped to do the same.

In a communication void the rumour mill takes over, usually with damaging Results, and HR practitioners can use their knowledge, skills and opportunities to minimise the chances of this happening.

Diagnosis and planning

Rarely does the path of true change run smooth, and when projects stall or derail, HR has a key role to play.

Questions are a basic tool of the HR trade. Armed with a knowledge and understanding of the structure of change and the ability to ask the right questions, HR is perfectly placed to diagnose the most likely root cause of any problems that arise. Honing this skill and coupling it with the development or use of diagnostic tools and templates to enable others involved in the change to look at its structural soundness is another valuable contribution HR can make.

In the absence of good diagnosis, the tendency will be to treat the symptoms without understanding the nature of the disease.

Planning

Project planning is usually done as a matter of course when large-scale change is planned, but this discipline may be less rigorously applied in seemingly simpler situations. 

HR can help set expectations and educate those involved by ensuring a comprehensive plan is laid out every time change is on the agenda. This will clarify the practicalities of who will do what and when and it will also provide an opportunity to ensure the whole change architecture is considered from the beginning.

Without a plan, it is hard to assess how much attention is being paid to each of the architectural elements of change, who is accountable for what, where progress has been made and what has still to be done.

A summary of change management

  • Recognise that, however large or small, all changes benefit from a change management perspective. 
  • Use the architecture of change model as a template for designing the process. 
  • Use planning skills to lay out a comprehensive process, create a common understanding among all those involved, assign accountability and measure progress. 
  • Ensure attention is paid equally to all four components of the architecture
  • Relevance
  • Readiness
  • Robustness
  • Responsiveness

Be willing to be unpopular in insisting on revisiting missed or poorly executed steps once change is underway. 

Use influencing skills to create sound project plans or redirect flawed change efforts. 

Use diagnostic skills to determine the root cause of failing change projects. 

Focus on communication and equip others to do the same.

Jan Hills, partner, Orion

Jan Hills, partner, Orion

Jan is the partner at Orion responsible for the HR strategy and HR capability service lines. Passionate about developing the HR function to be more commercial and to transform the value it adds to the business, she has extensive experience in HR and has held global HRD and general business roles.